Postgame Report: Magic Fall to Lakers Despite Good Defensive Effort

by John Denton

ORLANDO – At various points throughout a challenge-filled Wednesday for the Orlando Magic, it was difficult to tell which one-two punch was more devastating to their chances of winning: Facing superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis or having to do so while playing without all-star center Nikola Vucevic and blossoming point guard Markelle Fultz.

As it turns out, the Magic had plenty of fight – including a couple of angry shoves at long-time nemesis Dwight Howard – but they simply did not have enough firepower or attention to detail to overtake the triple-double exploits of James and his superstar teammate.

Orlando fell down by as much as 24 points in the early going, but it showed plenty of toughness and grit with a stirring second-half run that got the game knotted with slightly less than 11 minutes to play. However, the Magic never could overtake the Lakers when it mattered most because of James’ 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists and they were forced to stomach a 96-87 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

``I feel like when it comes to defense, it starts with me and not being on it and not making the plays that we went over in the game plan is unacceptable,’’ said Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, who scored 12 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter and added two blocked shots to his league-leading total of swats. ``I put a lot of that on myself. If anybody has to be ready (from the start of the game) to play defense, it should be me.’’

A noisy sellout crowd of 18,846 saw the Magic (11-13) outplay the West-leading Lakers (22-3) throughout the guts of the game. However, the Magic could never totally erase a poor start that saw them fall into a 42-18 hole in the second period when James scored over Isaac and Mo Bamba.

For fiery Magic coach Steve Clifford, it was inexcusable that his team played so poorly on both ends of the floor over the first 18 minutes of the game – a poor stretch that cost the team a shot at a much-needed victory. Clifford didn’t buy into the theory that the Magic simply didn’t have enough weapons on Wednesday without Vucevic (sprained right ankle), Fultz (stomach virus) and Al-Farouq Aminu (torn meniscus in right knee). Instead, he pointed to an absent attention to detail in the early stages of the game.

``I just told the guys this, we started the game as if we never had a shootaround this morning, never talked about the Lakers … you can’t turn it over and you’ve got to be physical on the glass and make good rebounding decisions so that you’re back and we did none of those three things and it took us 10-to-11 minutes to get locked into what we had to do,’’ said Clifford, whose Magic were outrebounded 49-41 and surrendered 16 second-chance points. ``After that, we played fine. We made too many mistakes. Our post defense, there were two big mistakes – one on LeBron and one on Anthony Davis and those cost us six points.

``The effort is fine. It’s not effort, but you have to know what the strengths of the other team are, especially the great teams, and you have to do what you have to do to take those strengths away,’’ the veteran coach added. ``And that’s not the way we started the game. To me, if you’re going to start that poorly, it’s hard to win against a team like that.’’

Isaac, who made five of his six shots with a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter alone, did all he could to keep the Magic close. His driving shot over Howard had Orlando within 88-83 with 3:21 to play, but the Lakers responded with two 3-pointers – the final one from James proving to be a dagger.

``That’s a tough cover, possibly the toughest coverage in the league because he’s such a great passer,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who scored 18 points and handed out five assists. ``Our whole defense is based on deflections and pressuring the ball, but when the ballhandler is 6-8 or 6-9 and can just pass over (the pressure), it changes everything. He can really skip that ball and it doesn’t give us time to recover defensively and get to shooters.’’

Said Aaron Gordon, who chipped in 14 points, 14 rebounds and four assists: ``(James) has always had a great feel for the game. We know that his instincts on the basketball court are really, really good.’’

Isaac, the NBA’s leader in blocked shots, added eight rebounds and two blocks. Orlando shot 42 percent for the game, but it made just eight of 26 3-point shots. The Lakers shot 42.5 percent and hit 12 of 31 3-pointers.

Davis had 16 points, 12 rebounds and six assists – many of them leading to 3-pointers after the Magic were forced to double-team him in the post. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope burned the Magic for 15 points and four 3-pointers, while Jared Dudley added nine points and three threes.

``Lebron was great, in particular down the stretch,’’ said Frank Vogel, the former Magic coach who has the Lakers on a five-game winning streak. ``Just by keeping the lead at a healthy distance by making weakside plays on the defensive end and he quarterbacks the action for us.’’

Orlando was once again without Vucevic (right ankle sprain), but it is hopeful that a return is imminent. Fultz, the Magic’s starter at point guard for the past 18 games, missed his first game of the season on Wednesday because of a stomach virus.

Orlando is now 1-10 on the season against teams with winning records with the one victory coming on Nov. 13 against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Amway Center. Meanwhile, the Magic have taken care of business against lesser teams, compiling a 10-3 mark against squads with losing records.

To beat the best teams, Clifford said, the Magic have to be better dialed in to their game plan.

``As I told them, we have a smart team, but we weren’t smart tonight,’’ Clifford said as his voice rose with each syllable to ram home his point. ``That’s not smart, that’s not effort-based. (Assistant coach) Pat Delany has been in the NBA forever and he knows (the Lakers) inside and out and he gave (Magic players) a great plan and for 12 minutes we said, `We’re going to do what we want.’ We’re not that team, even with (Vucevic and Fultz) we’re not that team. We have to play with disciple, know who we’re playing against to take their strengths away. That’s our chance.’’

Orlando faced the West-leading Lakers just two days after playing the East-leading Bucks in Milwaukee on Monday. According to SportsRadar, the Magic’s consecutive games against the two NBA powers made for the second-most difficult two-game stretch in their 31-year history. The combined winning percentages of the Bucks and Lakers at the time of the Magic playing them (.872, 41-6) makes it their second-most difficult set of games in franchise history. The toughest two-game stretch in Orlando history (minimum 20 games played) was Dec. 23 and 25, 2010 when it played San Antonio (25-3) and Boston (23-4), who combined for a 48-7 record and an .873 winning percentage.

Wednesday’s game featured the returns to Orlando for Howard and Vogel. The 34-year-old Howard, who still leads the Magic in several major all-time statistical categories during his stint in Orlando from 2004-12, plays entirely off the Lakers’ bench now as he attempts to extend his career.

Howard, who had two points, six rebounds and a block in nearly 18 minutes on Wednesday, was involved in a scrape with 7:06 left in the game when he and Dudley shoved with Orlando’s Wes Iwundu and Michael Carter-Williams. Technical fouls were called on all four players, and Iwundu (six points, three rebounds and two assists) and Dudley were ejected for their shoves. Fans inside the Amway Center booed Howard lustily as he stepped to the free throw line and they cheered with delight when he missed both free throws.

As for Vogel, Wednesday night was the first time he was back at the Amway Center since he was fired by the Magic following a forgettable two-year run as head coach. When asked before the game if having players named ``James’’ and ``Davis’’ made him a better coach, Vogel smiled and said: ``Of course, all coaches are smarter with great players.’’

D.J. Augustin, the starter all of last season and in the first five games of this season, returned to the starting lineup on Wednesday in place of the ailing Fultz.

``We have the depth, but you wouldn’t want to play without Markelle for two weeks, but hopefully it’ll just be one night,’’ Clifford said.

Orlando’s stretch of games against stellar competition continues on Friday when it hosts James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets. The Magic split two games with the Rockets last season by winning in Orlando and losing in Houston.

Down as much as 24 points early in the second quarter and trailing by 13 at intermission, the Magic played their most spirited stretch of the night in the third period and got within 69-65 by the start of the fourth.

Orlando opened the second half with a 17-6 burst by making five of six shots that included three 3-pointers. The Magic would get as close as two points of the lead in the third at 59-57, but it never could overtake the Lakers for the lead. That would finally come early in the fourth period when the Magic knotted the score at 71 on a 3-pointer by Carter-Williams.

Orlando started poorly on both ends of the floor, it but did come alive defensively in the second quarter to get within 51-38 by halftime. The Magic’s nine points in the first quarter were a season low for any quarter and the 38 points over the first 24 minutes were another season low for a first half.

For the rapidly maturing Isaac, the poor start was unforgivable because it played such a big role in costing his team a chance at winning. Isaac blamed himself for not covering Davis well enough in the post and it leading to a 3-point shot for the Lakers. On another sequence, Isaac said he was also to blame for not blocking out with enough physicality on an L.A. free throw miss that gave the Lakers an extra possession.

``Kudos for them for making plays, but we’re right there, there are no moral victories and we’ve got to find a way to not only hang with the elite teams but also persevere to wins,’’ the 22-year-old Isaac said. ``I’m not trying to (fall on the proverbial sword), but with this team and me being somebody who takes pride in defense, it is my responsibility to show up, especially when the game starts. I’m not trying to be a (hero), but I just want to do my job.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.


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